I love the concept of ‘marginal gains’. This is the idea that you don’t have to make huge changes to have a positive outcome, but that a series of minute adjustments can, cumulatively, have a massive impact.
The idea was first tried by the British Olympic Cycling Team. They knew that there was little difference in overall performance between the elite teams, so the British performance manager, Dave Brailsford, started to look at every single tiny aspect of performance from equipment to clothing to diet to the design of bikes and helmets and ask: ‘how could this be tweaked to improve overall outcomes for us?’ And the result of all those marginal gains was a slew of medals for the British team at the Beijing, London and Rio Olympics, and the first British win ever in the Tour de France in 2012, followed by wins in 2013,’15,‘16 and ‘17.
Exactly the same principle is behind Dr. Michael Mosely’s series on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Just One Thing’, especially because his approach is evidence-based, practical, sensible and if we incorporate some or many of his suggestions, we may, ultimately, live healthier lives for longer.
Mosely has just completed another series, so, like the last three, I thought you might like to hear what his latest ten ‘one things’ are and why they could positively impact your life. I also thought you might be interested to know how many of the suggestions from the past three series I have now incorporated into my own life on a regular basis. I’ve just looked back at the blogs that I wrote for series one, two and three (which you can read via the links below) and was amazed that my tally is eighteen out of thirty, and with the latest ten ideas, many of which I already do, it brings the total to around twenty-five out of forty. That’s 25 marginal gains to my physical, mental and emotional health just by routinely incorporating ‘just one more thing’ into my daily routine.
Here’s Dr. Mosely’s latest list:
1- Swap Out Sugar for Fruit. We all know that sugar is hidden in a great many processed foods like cakes, biscuits, soft drinks and ready meals. Why? Because it makes everything taste better, it’s cheap and moreish. Food manufacturers love it but our bodies definitely do not. I get quite cross when someone will pipe up with “fruit’s just as bad for you because it’s full of fructose” because they forget that fruit (especially the skin) is also full of fibre, vitamins and flavonols. I have made a monumental effort over the past few years to cut down on my sugar intake and have been helped so much by consuming things like one or two Medjool dates every day which satisfies my very sweet tooth. I am convinced that, as Dr. Mosely says, my teeth, waistline, mood, memory, and (above all) my skin have benefitted hugely from swapping out sugar for fruit.
2- Reach Out. Ring someone, arrange a meet-up, talk to a neighbour, chat to a shop assistant. In other words, take any and every opportunity, large and small, to increase the number of social interactions you have every day. This will have a multitude of benefits including strengthening your immune system and even prolonging your life as research shows that life expectancy is correlated with the number of connections you make with other human beings. Good news is that even virtual contact via Facebook (Super Troopers!) and Zoom makes a difference, which is probably why I love our fortnightly Film Club sessions so much.
3- Try Tai Chi. This ancient Chinese practice of slow, gentle postures and movements has been shown to have a multitude of benefits, especially as we age. It can be as effective for losing weight as traditional exercise and is perfect for those that dislike the idea of getting sweaty in a gym. Find a programme online and try to do about 15 minutes of practice a day to get improvements in heart health, osteo-arthritis, joint stiffness and pain, cognitive function (memory) and boost your immune system. It may look gentle but, practised daily it can improve overall muscle strength and fitness.
4- Choose Red Wine. In excess alcohol is bad for you. And excess is more than 6 small glasses of wine a week (a small glass is one sixth of a bottle). However if you normally drink a small glass of white wine with your meal, then there are benefits to changing that to red. Why? Because red wine is especially rich in polyphenols which can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and can help to create a more diverse gut biome, according to research by Dr. Tim Spector.
5- Put Your Phone Down. I think this one applies to my offspring much more than me, however, I do spend more time than I should ‘doom-scrolling’ on Twitter and checking what is happening in the world. Many adults now spend more than 4 hours a day on their smartphones and this has been shown to interfere with sleep, lower mood and affect productivity. Benefits come from cutting down by at least an hour every day and putting your phone out of sight, rather than leaving it visible whilst you get on with something else. Also, you really cannot do two things at once. Either listen to someone or check your phone! So the best advice is to only use (or carry) your phone when you absolutely have to.
6- Clean Your Teeth. I was amazed to learn that 25% of women only brush their teeth once a day and in men it’s nearer 40%. So, best practice is to brush morning and night, preferably with an electric toothbrush for a full 2 minutes, having used either floss or interdental brushes beforehand. Fluoride toothpastes are best and leave a little of the toothpaste in the mouth after cleaning. The point is to reduce the build-up of harmful bacteria in the mouth and to keep your gums healthy. Bacteria from the mouth leaks into your bloodstream and can be a contributing factor in heart attacks and strokes. Research on the brains of people who had died from Alzheimers also showed a greater presence of oral bacteria than those without dementia.
7- Lift Some Weights. Another simple thing which can boost your mood, your level of immunity, improve your heart health and help you to live longer and in better shape. We’re not talking about body-building or turning you into a Sumo wrestler but simply using weights to improve your strength. This is in order to maintain muscle mass which is a better indicator of how long you may live than anything else. You don’t even need to buy weights, but can use full milk cartons to do some bicep curls, or pack some books into a rucksack and wear it to do some lunges or squats. Lindsay, my PT, uses 3, 2 and 1 kg weights with me twice a week which has definitely made me stronger, and may also have helped with cognitive function too.
8- Nibble Nuts. Nuts often get a really bad press because they’re full of (unsaturated) fat and some people are highly allergic to them. However, eaten wisely, nuts can be a very valuable source of protein and fibre and are rich in polyphenols which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. All nuts have a similar nutritional profile and are useful snacks when dieting as they help to fill you up. Nuts have been shown to increase blood flow to the brain which can enhance short term memory, verbal fluency and long term fact retention. And the good news is that the high fat content is not fully absorbed by our bodies because of the way that we chew them.
9- Try Some Turmeric. If you love cooking your own curries, you may already be incorporating this bright yellow ingredient into your diet. Turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine for painful chronic conditions like arthritis and in studies it has been shown to markedly reduce joint pain more effectively than ibuprofen. The beneficial active ingredient is curcumin and this can be taken as a supplement if you prefer, but to increase absorption it needs to be ingested with fat - which is why turmeric works so well in curries.
10- Write it Out. This is particularly helpful if you are having a tough time emotionally or are very stressed. I kept a journal every day of the first year of India’s life. She is my special grandchild who was born with complex needs and who spent her first 10 months in intensive care. Most nights before bed I would write down anything I needed to express - fears, frustrations, worries, conversations. I knew I’d never share the contents with anyone, but just writing it down helped me to keep things in perspective. My mantra was ‘this too shall pass’. And it did! Benefits of setting aside just 15 minutes three times a week to ‘write it out’ have been shown to include a reduction in negative thoughts, improvement in sleep and even a boost to your immune system, probably due to lower levels of stress.
Can I encourage you as I did in last week’s blog to ‘try something new’ from this and the other lists that Michael Mosely has kindly collated for us? Every day when I stand on one leg to improve my balance, whilst cleaning my teeth for 2 minutes, or have a nice hot bath at bedtime, after which I read a novel for half an hour, I know that there is solid scientific evidence that I am experiencing multiple benefits. I now eat an apple every day with some nuts, and make sure to keep my water intake continually topped up. I also choose to eat less sugar but more 85% dark chocolate and oily fish (not together!), and I set an alarm to remind myself to get up from a sedentary position for 10 minutes every hour, sometimes doing a quick intensive burst on my exercise bike.
And talking of bikes, Dave Brailsford even insisted that the same hypo-allergenic bedding, mattresses and pillows should accompany the GB cycling team wherever they went. Others scoffed at first, but the derision stopped as soon as all those marginal gains translated into the a massive haul of Olympic medals and Tour de France winners’ yellow jerseys.
So, why not choose to incorporate some of Dr Mosely’s suggestions into your daily routine and you, also, may live a happier, healthier, longer and much more fulfilling life. I promise you that all those marginal gains really can add up to multiple benefits.
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Friday 28th April
Film Club: Living with Bill Nighy
Available on Amazon Prime + Curzon Home Cinema
Watch the film beforehand and join us for a group discussion!
Day: Friday 28th April 2023
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB